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The History of Ripon

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Ripon has been the site of a human activity since at least the time of the Celts when the Brigantes ruled the area. A large earthworks is still evident just three miles away from the city’s present site. The Romans largely passed the area by but the early Christians built a church there in the 7th century, dedicating it to St. Peter. The
church was erected on the site of an Anglian settlement that is thought to have been first established in the year 658. This settlement was founded by Wilfrid, later to be the Bishop of York , who gathered skilled men in the area to construct a monastery there. Wilfrid’s church was destroyed by Edere, the King of Mercia in 860. Only the crypt remains of this original structure, forming part of the present cathedral.

Building of the cathedral began under the auspices of Archbishop l’Eveque in 1180. This formed the basis of what is now Ripon Cathedral , with the West front added by Archbishop Walter in 1220. The East section was rebuilt and enlarged in 1286 by Archbishop Romanus. The central spire was demolished by storms in 1660, prompting the removal of the two western spires for safety reasons. At this time in Ripon’s history the local economy was based mainly the trade in wool. The nearby Fountains Abbey , with its vast areas of grazing, was well placed to exploit the trade. Ripon was already a thriving centre for wool production and the trade in cloth, with merchants coming from all over Europe to stock up on the city’s finest produce, when a law was passed forbidding the wearing of foreign cloth in 1326.

Ripon’s right to hold a fair was granted by charter in 1108 and a market is still held in the Market Square every Thursday. Ripon’s northern situation always meant it suffered from trouble with invasion from further north and had at one time to pay the Scots 1000 Marks to prevent them from burning the town to the ground. The city’s reliance on religious institutions almost proved its undoing when King Henry VIII began dismantling the power and wealth of the church. The English Reformation saw the dismantling of monasteries and the destruction of much of the church’s property. Fountains Abbey suffered at the hands of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and is now a ruin. A Catholic uprising against the forces of reformation that centred on nearby Topcliffe failed. The rebels stayed in Ripon on 18 November 1569 and of the 600 eventually executed, 300 were hung at Gallows Hill in Ripon. Plans were drawn up during the reign of Elizabeth I to establish a centre of education there to rival those at Cambridge and Oxford . However, the queen didn’t follow the idea through.

As the importance of textiles to the local economy faded Ripon became famous for an entirely different product, spurs. Worn primarily as a fashion item, spurs from Ripon became synonymous with quality leading to the expression “as true as Ripon Rowels”. Although there was minor damage to the Minster in 1643, during the Civil War , Ripon emerged from the conflict relatively unscathed. The Industrial Revolution that began in the Georgian era also largely passed Ripon by, although the city did continue to gently prosper. John Aislabie, an MP for Ripon, created Studley Royal Park and its water garden. It was also during this Georgian period that Christopher Wren built Newby Hall . A notable feature of Ripon’s market square is the Obelisk. Built in 1703 to replace an earlier market cross and half paid for by the then Mayor of Ripon John Aislabie. The Ripon Horn and a star are featured at the top of the Obelisk. The Obelisk was remodelled and restored in 1781.

The trains came to Ripon in the Victorian era and the new railway station opened in 1848. The railway was the final death knell for the under-performing Ripon Canal, which had opened in 1773 but had been losing money for much of its existence. The rights to hold the market, originally in the hands of the church, were bought by the Corporation in 1880 for £1500. The town hall, a notable building in the Market Square, was actually built as a private house. Originally the town house of Mrs Allanson of Studley Royal, the property was eventually given over to the Corporation in 1897. Attempts to remodel Ripon as a Spa resort in the early 20th century were eventually abandoned, mainly due to the passing of the fashion of ‘taking the waters’. Despite growing in size since the last World War Ripon has managed to retain much of its historic charm. The Market Square retains a Georgian look and feel, even if some of the façades are newer and others hide buildings far older still.

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